What beautiful weather for canoeing! Today we canoed the Root River from Lanesboro to Rushford, about 15 miles. We thought it would take four hours, turns out we id it in two. I hit nary a tree this time, largely thanks to Erika's mad canoe sterning abilities. The weather was gorgeous; a cool morning with almost no clouds in the sky. I've gotten so I can paddle well, and steer if necessary, from the front of a canoe, which is good because before this trip I'd never really been on one. The scenery was great, too. We saw an old car graveyard, with front halves of cars sticking out from the bank, and lots of birds and trees.
We also saw what a flood can do to riverbanks. The high water had ripped apart four feet of bank on either side. Later, after our lunch, we drove past a levee that had burst, which was one of the coolest things ever. Well, not really, of course, because it burst onto a farmer's field. But it looked cool, and showed the awesome raw power that a river like the Mississippi can have. You could see where it just knocked it right down, and tore through it as if the levee were made of nothing at all. I was struck by almost how futile it seemed, to try and prevent that much pure…force from doing what it's going to.
One of the main things this trip has given me is a new understanding of the river (namely, now I really have one). I realize it's not just this pretty thing of water that sits there. Before this trip, I'd drive over the Mississippi and not really think anything of it…I was too used to it, too indifferent. "Eh," I thought, "It's a river." Now it's impossible for me to drive past the floodwaters (in areas where the river isn't even normally flowing) and not just stare out at them and be captivated by what a special, truly wonderful thing a river, and ours in particular, is.
And then I think about the way we use and abuse it, and I can't be indifferent. It's not just a vague abstraction. The river now has real, personal meaning for me. It's a river of life, in every sense of the word. A river isn't just something to be crossed anymore.
After lunch, we went to this cool Egyptian-revival style bank in Winona, designed by the architect who tutored Frank Lloyd Wright. It was an incredibly interesting design, but the oddest thing was the animals. The first president of the bank was a big game hunter, and there were about 40 species of animals (each listed as "from Africa", as if it were all one habitat) stuffed in cases around the upstairs lobby. Peggy figured that about half of them were currently on the endangered species list.
We then toured this really cool flour mill in Pickwick. It's the oldest standing industrial building in the state, and is being renovated by two guys from Pickwick. There's a huge, 20 foot tall, 4 foot wide waterwheel that it runs off. It's 6 stories high, and is the most picturesque things I've ever seen. The power is transferred throughout this humongous structure from the one axle of the water wheel using an elaborate system of belts, and the grain is moved with lots of little elevators. It was cool to see an old mill (after we heard about them so much at the falls) that is partially working. We had a great dinner of tortellini, reflected (I'll write more about that tomorrow), and are now cleaning up.
Peggy can't go Pppah.
Today was a day that doesn't take a long time to write about. But while it can be summed up in just a few sentences, it was, as Martina would say, wonderful. We slept in, and then Anna and I went around the neighborhood interviewing people for our project, including a 80-some year old woman who was president of Citizens for a Clean Mississippi. Then we came back, had lunch, and went up to do service work (mostly picking up sticks) for people around the island whose yards were flooded.
Meanwhile John and Peggy frantically edited tape for the video that had to be sent out today (the UPS office in Redwing closes at six). We were done with our work at four, the video was finished ("It's better than perfect, it's done") at 5:30. And it takes half an hour to get into Redwing. We made it to the UPS office at 6:02 (they weren't closed yet).
The kids (and Erika) were dropped off at the library for some time intensive research, email checking, and putting together children's puzzles (the latter was the most difficult) and Peggy and John headed out to buy groceries. After much squeaking on Anna's part (she found out about an assignment she has to do) the van picked us up, and we all went to dinner at Golden China.
We were seated in front of this huge picture window through which we could see the sky slowly turn green and the rain come, as well as hear the tornado warning sirens go off. We drove home through an incredibly lightning filled sky, one of the most beautiful I've ever seen…there wasn't a single moment when there weren't at least three bolts of lightning in the sky, illuminating these huge, low banks of storm clouds. Cool, huh? The perfectly simple ending to a simply perfect day.
May 8- This morning there was good new and bad news. We didn't have any hot water, but John made us an amazing breakfast of omelets, hash browns, and sausage.
Dave Palmquist, a naturalist with the DNR, met us on a bluff near the confluence of the Whitewater and the Mississippi. Then we went on the hardest hike, ever. We got to go up on top of a prairie bluff. The view was almost as beautiful as the one from the Weaver dunes. But the view was at the top of a 70 degree incline that we all got to scramble up. John figures it was 150 vertical feet (there are cool pictures on the site, I'm sure).
After telling us about prairie ecology, he took us down and showed us a timber rattler Minnesota's (probably) last rattler, and poisonous snake. Needless to say, Anna kept her distance. Even though the snake Dave showed us can be very deadly, it was really beautiful… its markings were made up of these deep, rich browns and tans.
We got to learn all about algific talus slopes, which are these cool tiny ecosystems that are remnants of the ice age, when the glaciers were last here. They occur when there's a cave with a spring on the north (and hence cooler) face of a bluff. In winter, the water freezes, but in the summer it never gets hot enough to melt the ice back into the cave and ground. There was this one paleontologist who was collecting fossil snail shells all along the edge of the glacial advance. When he got to bluff country, he found the snails alive and well. Dave said it was the equivalent of seeing a T Rex or wooly mammoth walking through the woods.
Along with the really neat stuff, he gave us a figure that just stuck in my head: 95% of Minnesota's original landscape is GONE. That got me thinking about management, and what that means when you're dealing with water. The DNR manages land and wildlife to preserve, maintain, and restore it. They try and keep it natural. We manage the river in a completely different way. Instead of doing things with nature, we do things to nature. Which is a shame, because it's so incredibly important. Like Mike Davis said, if you get the water right, everything else will respond.
We headed back to camp for a late lunch, while everyone shared snakebite/dangerous animal stories. I think Peggy has encountered the most dangerous animal of us all- a real, live lion. (I'm not sure if that's including the St. Bernard that once bit her in the rear.) After lunch we took canoes out into the neighborhood. Really into the neighborhood. We canoed up to people's houses and garages, and had a very fun time. Sara and I were in the same canoe, and neither of us have any real experience with a canoe, but we managed. By the end we were hitting trees much less often, almost not at all. But when we were done, we were still bone dry (except for a little bit of my shoe where I had to push us off a steel drum).
After canoeing we watched the video for the day, then met Andrew (the wonderful camp manager) at the high ropes course. It was great! We got all harnessed up and climbed this really big pole, and then got to do all these fun things. What was weird about it was that the ones that looked the scariest, to me anyway, were the easiest. There was this one where you had to walk across this log (and it wasn't very big) without any support, and one where there was just this gap that you had to step across, that looked the hardest. But if you just trusted yourself (and trusted your feet, John would say) they weren't a problem.
There was one that was a problem, though. It started out with two ropes on either side above you, and one in the middle underneath you. But they were angled, so that they got closer and closer to each other until they switched in the middle and there was one rope above you and two underneath. The tricky part was where you had to transfer your feet and your hands. And it was really tricky. The only person I saw make it across without slipping or getting stuck was Erika, who practically just hopped across it (but then again, she's a gymnast). I did it immediately after her, and made it across (with only one slip) with her help.
What was so amazing about the course was all the support and encouragement everyone gave each other as they were doing different things. It was a really great feeling! After dinner that all of us kids made (and I mean all- I think there were six people in our little kitchenette at one point) we built a bonfire, and introduced Sara and Martina to the joys of roasting marshmallows (neither had ever even tasted a marshmallow before). Martina thought they were too sweet, but Sara liked them, especially nice and black.
Then we all trudged in and worked on our journals. By this point we were all very tired and very, very loopy, and got to telling bad jokes that made us burst out laughing. (What's brown and sticky? A stick. Where do you find a no-legged dog? Right where you left him). People were typing with their heads resting on the table. It's now the next morning, and most are still in bed, but a few of us are up, already hard at work. Or at least at work. Or at least up, in some vague sense of the word.
Today may very well be my favorite day so far. Maybe not, but it's a definite contender. Mike Davis, a fisheries biologist with the DNR, showed us an amazing slideshow that went through all the Mississippi's history, and the history of our impact on it. He talked about the effects modern agriculture has on the river by channeling sediment and fertilizer runoff into it. But since we dam the river, the sediment can't get through. The extra sediment released into the river is churned up by barge traffic, decreasing water clarity, which kills rooted plants.
The agricultural runoff is composed largely of phosphorous that also favors algae over rooted plants. The end result is that less real plants grow, causing food chains along the river to collapse. Moreover, the dams devastate marshland habitats by not allowing the periodic dry spells necessary to sustain the plant life. The constant high water levels of the dam, combined with the increased wave action caused by both the loss of the aquatic rooted plants and the wakes of large recreational vehicles, erodes the higher natural features of the floodplain (such as islands). The lower ones (that would be small ponds in a dry cycle) are filled in by the increased sediment buildup behind the dams. This creates large lakes of a constant level and depth, decreasing the biodiversity in the system.
The farmers that rely on the river to transport their crops have to farm within 100-50 miles of it, or else the costs of shipping it are too high. But at the same time, that proximity to the river means their crops are more likely to be destroyed by floods (the severity of which are increased by the hard-wall flood protection elsewhere).
Also, the planting of corn and soybeans year after year is ruining the productivity of the soil. To remedy this, genetically modified crops are being grown. But all the grain being transported by river is for the international market, and there is no international market for genetically modified crops (most other countries won't buy them). The shipping industry says it needs to increase lock length (and possibly channel depth) if it's going to remain competitive. But that, and the other things that would need to happen to make it possible, would only increase other problems with the river (wing dams are a good example).
We talked about river stuff some more, and then each got a "Mussels of Minnesota" poster. Now for the really fun part. Mike took us to watch the floodplain drain, and then led us on a hike up the sand dunes, a large bluff area made of really sandy soil. And when you get up to the top of it, it really is a sand dune. There's blowing sand and species of plants and animals that are common only in dryer areas. We actually saw a prickly pear cactus! In Minnesota! The view from the top was amazing. The place was filled with these cool prairie grasses and medicinal plants.
Peggy taught me about different kinds of scat, that I then identified. And we found a deer carcass! First we found its hair, all in a big pile along with an ear and the tail. A little while later we found the pelvic girdle and the lower part of the spine. Now Martina and Robbie are having a staring contest that's been going on for 45 minutes. As you say in German, "Was sich liebt, das naeckt sich." For the English speakers out there, think about how elementary school-age boys and girls show affection.
John, Peggy, and Erika (now christened as "Cheerio") are making dinner, so that should be good. Until tomorrow, g'bye! I'm'on' get me some chicken stars.
Last night after I wrote my journal a lot else happened, so I guess I'll start with that. Over dinner we had a great conversation about how the river isn't really a river at all- it's a series of controlled pools that just happen to flow. Then Army Corps of Engineers use the system of locks and dams to maintain a constant depth of 9 feet (the average for the river would usually be four) for barge traffic. That's certainly important; 60% of Minnesota's agricultural commodities travel by the river. About 50 billion dollars worth of goods is transported on the Mississippi each year.
But the dams and locks cause enormous environmental problems. They don't allow silt to be carried downstream, which is depleting the delta. Moreover, since the agricultural runoff (fertilizers and such) still flows downstream, but without the silt, the delta is now one huge biologically dead zone. The Mississippi is managed along almost its entire length, which has also led to habitat devastation. The levees and floodwalls prevent the river from returning needed nutrients to the floodplain.
After that we watched a movie on the '93 flood, and spent a while talking about life on the floodplain, and all the complexities of it. Some people say that we shouldn't compensate people who live in the floodplain for flood damage, but at the same time some of that damage may actually be caused by flood protection elsewhere. Floodwalls in a large urban area, for example, can cause flooding to be worse in rural areas. I realized just how complicated, intricate, and layered a flood really is.
After that bit of thinking, we had the pillow fight to end all pillow fights, and then talked about and came up with nicknames for everyone. Max: Zazu (because I'm like the bird in the Lion King) Robbie: Fuffy (pronounced foo-fee, because he is) Anna: Piepsi (piepsen is German for "to squeak") Sara: Schully (Snuller is German for pacifier; she used to carry one around) Dan: Shaka Love (oh, c'mon) Matina: Tinus (from the Latin; like Tina, only masculine) Peggy: Clover (she finds four-leafed ones) John: Schmetterling (German for "butterfly") Pam: Heidi (she has blond braids, and comes from mountains)
Soon after that we got to bed, only to wake up at seven this morning. After a short breakfast, we went to Cannon Falls to bike the trail there, and, for me at least, to crash on the trail. Erika (she doesn't have a nickname yet) said I did it very gracefully, though, and it wasn't the only accident (Martina and Sara sort of crashed once).
And that's another thing! Pam left us this morning (we miss you, Pam!) to be replaced by Erika (we're glad you're here, Erika!). After twenty miles of biking, we had lunch in a park pavillion while the rain poured down. We were going to do a scavenger hunt in Redwing, but it was raining and we were all way too tired. We came back to "the ranch."
I honed my video-editing and BS-playing skills, then helped to make dinner. As I write this John is trying to ready the next video to be sent out tomorrow, the soundtrack of which we just all sang. SCHINKEN! EI!
May 5- I don't think anyone got enough sleep last night. The boys didn't get to sleep until one, the girls until two. We all got up at 7. After a nutritious breakfast of doughnuts and cereal ("Marshmallow Mateys") we worked on journals and the final editing of our amazingly wonderful movie.
Then we went to the technical college in Redwing for the two webcasts we we're doing- the first to a group of river conservationists in Brainerd, the second to a group of environmental science teachers meeting in St. Cloud. We got there at ten; our first webcast was supposed to be at 11:30.While John and Peggy set up the communication, electronic, and computer equipment, we played card games.
Two hours later, we were still playing cards while they tried to get the communication, electronic, and computer equipment to work. We just had very bad luck, and neither webcast happened. Then, we tried to take questions by cell phone, and the cell phone power suddenly quit. But the morning was still fun. We played great card games (I got to practice my German explaining rules) and we all learned some new, not quite "appropriate" German vocab (most of which reflected Peggy and John's mood).
After our bagged lunches (thank you, Sara!) we hiked up Barn Bluff. I learned a new German song (I've got the words, Frau G.) and saw some of the best views EVER. We headed back into Stockholm (not the one in Sweden) and Anna and I talked to Ollie and Steve, two seventy year-old guys who fished commercially since the 30s. It was great, and we got a wonderful interview and set of pictures. We just came home, and are about to canoe (Robbie needs a little instruction on where he can and can't put his feet/bread dough).
May 4- Another wonderful day. We met at Hamline, before heading out for good. A simple stop in Hastings turned into the our first opportunity to work on our project. Anna and I asked the Professor Java's Round Table (a group of Hastings people that meet each morning in Professor Java's coffee house to sit and talk) if we could talk to them about life on the river. It was great! We we're really nervous at first. I was afraid that people wouldn't want to talk to us, or appreciate being accosted by two high school students. Even worse, I was worried the interviews might go something like this: ME: So…does living on a major river affect your life? THOROUGHLY ANNOYED & APATHETIC TOWNSPERSON: Yeah.
But the people at Prof. Java's were wonderful. We didn't even need to ask many questions…they were more than pleased to talk to us and incredibly helpful. They told us about sights down by the river/flood bank that they said we should get pictures of, and all about how the flood and the river changes their lives. We got the pictures, but it involved jumping over a few snow fences that were supposed to keep us out from the flooded area (the whole usually river-side park was in the river). I'm not completely sure it was illegal; it's not like there were any clearly posted signs. Just some yellow KEEP OUT tape and a ROAD CLOSED sign.
From Hastings we went to the Prairie Island Reservation, to talk with Joe Campbell- herbalist, anti-nuclear activist, international speaker, and general guide to the meaning of it all (his business card says "Mysteries of Life Solved," and it's true). We talked with Joe for several hours, about pretty much everything under the sun. He had lots to say, and it was all amazing.
One of my favorite parts was a story he told. He was explaining to a kid why the kid would pay a fine for driving his three wheeler without a license, even though Joe had gotten the same charges dismissed against him before. He explained it this way. Once there was a village with 3 families. The first family had oatmeal every day for breakfast. Always oatmeal. When they had children, the children ate oatmeal. Then they had children, and those children ate oatmeal, too. The second family always ate corn mush for breakfast. So did their children, and their children after them. Throughout the generations, the second family always had corn mush. But then there was the third family. They had whatever they wanted for breakfast. When they had children, they taught them to eat whatever they wanted for breakfast, too. Many hundreds of years later, the first family was still having oatmeal, the second corn mush, but the third was still eating whatever they wanted. J
oe compared it to trying to go exploring by jumping on a train. You're not going to get anywhere new, anywhere where no one's been before. The track you're following was already set out long ago. Sometimes continuity with history can be something that keeps us in a rut, that keeps us from doing anything new. We talked about God, Nature, the nuclear plant, the casino, anything you could ever imagine.
He told us how the Dakota always use tobacco to ask nature when they need to take something they need. That shows a reverence for nature that I think is amazing. All the time we act like we can just take whatever we want, without thinking about the ramifications, and what we're taking and who we're taking it from. For lunch we went to the buffet at Treasure Island, which was HUGE. I've never seen so many desserts in my life. I had just the one trip and two plates, compared to Anna's four trips and eight plates. We decided she was like a snake; she doesn't eat often, but when she does, she eats a lot.
After lunch shopped for $200 worth of groceries and went to Camp Pepin, our home for the next week. To get there we had to drive through the Mississippi. It was great! We set up camp in our palatial lodge, and broke out our 8 computers. Pam, Sara, and I whipped up some real good pizza for dinner. After that we went out and did some stuff on the camp's Initiative course that's sort of hard to explain.
Then we learned how to use iMovie, and made an amazingly wonderful movie using our footage from the last two days. I think it's up on the site already. If it is, you all need to go watch it. It shows all the great stuff we've done- Fort Snelling, the Falls, our trip to Hastings, talking with Joe, the drive through the river, and our fun on the course. That's pretty much it. We had a full, fun day!
What a great first day. Sitting here at home, I can't wait for tomorrow morning to come so we can hit the road! Today we started off with a tour and walk around St. Anthony Falls (which were absolutely amazing with the high water) given by Pat Nunnaly- historian, Mississippi guru, and all around great guy.
As we looked around, he asked us to consider four "Axioms for Learning from the Landscape". The ones that really struck me, and that I kept returning to the entire day, were the middle two:
Landscapes are layered and dynamic.
Landscapes are placed and contextualized, both temporally and spatially.
I really saw these at the Falls in the form of the bridge to Nicollet Island on Hennepin. Originally, of course, there was no bridge there. Then there was a little bridge (way back in the 19th century), then a bigger suspension one, then an even bigger bridge, then a simple (but bigger still) bridge, until today's, which is roughly the same design of the first (only about five times as big). After seeing models of all these different bridges that spanned over a hundred years (but that also spanned almost the exact same space) I couldn't look at the modern bridge without thinking of all the bridges that came before it, and all the people who used that bridge, or worked near it.
Each one of those bridges was a distinct creation of the time it was built and had its own temporal context, but at the same time there was this spatial continuity of history that couldn't be ignored. It's like if you know the history of a place, really know it, it's impossible to escape that history. It becomes a part of the meaning of the place. Each bit of history becomes another layer that's added.
And it tied in with our trip to Fort Snelling, too! I knew that they'd both be fun things to do, but I'd thought they'd be two separate fun things to do. But it's not that way at all. There are lots of connections between them. The location of Fort Snelling is where the Falls were about 10,000 years ago (they moved upstream).
No sooner did we get to Fort Snelling than we heard that the sawmills up at the Falls were originally manned by soldiers, and used to cut wood coming from up north to supply building materials for the Fort. We heard other stories about the connections from our intrepid Fort Snelling guide, David Wiggins. And it gets better! These connections go out much further than just down the river.
David told my favorite story of the day. Apparently, one night during the 1820s a soldier on guard duty at Fort Snelling saw a huge meteor fall out of the sky, right near the confluence of the rivers. The sound it made on impact was so loud that it woke up Colonel Snelling and the other soldiers. The meteor was never recovered, but later a Dakota Indian record was found that showed the meteor. Where did they see it from? North Dakota.
So today was good. It was a tad awkward at first....on the ride to the Falls, no one said a word to anyone else, and we all just sat there in silence. But by the middle of the day, the ice had been broken, and we were volunteering each other to wash clothes and be operated upon at Fort Snelling. I got to practice my German, doing some on-the-spot translating (it was reeeaal bad) for Martina.
Another important lesson I learned: if you're using electronic equipment, always make sure your batteries are fresh. When I recorded Pat talking about the archeological dig at the Falls, the batteries in my cassette recorder were running out, so the tape started to go slower and slower. That means that when you play it back, it gets real weird. He starts out talking at his normal speed, but gets faster and faster until at the end it sounds like an over-enthusiastic chipmunk going on and on in a high pitched squeal about the archeological significance of privies (which was a shame, because it was actually really interesting).
for Global Environmental Education